Syria Accepts Phased Withdrawal, but is It Really a Breakthrough?

Syria’s position that it is willing to accept a phased Israeli withdrawal from the Golan Heights, rather than an immediate and total pullout, is not a new breakthrough, according to the man who headed the Israeli delegation to the peace talks with Syria until last fall.

The Syrian position was described as a breakthrough in a New York Times article on Thursday. But Yossi Ben-Aharon, former director-general of the Prime Minister’s Office, said a similar position was presented to the Israelis at the early stages of the peace talks, shortly after the October 1991 peace conference in Madrid.

Speaking on Israel Radio, Ben-Aharon recalled Thursday that Syria had demanded an Israeli commitment for a total withdrawal and had said that once such a commitment were given, Syria would be willing to negotiate about implementing the withdrawal in stages.

Ben-Aharon was dropped from his position with the peace talks after Yitzhak Rabin’s government came into office last summer.

There was no official reaction from the current government about the Times report.

The article, an op-ed column by Leslie Gelb, said the Syrian position was presented to U.S. Secretary of State Warren Christopher during his recent visit to Damascus.

In Washington, State Department spokesman Richard Boucher had little to say Thursday when asked whether Syrian President Hafez Assad had suggested to Christopher that there might be a change in Syrian policy.

“We’re not going to be able to comment one way or the other on some of the substantive issues that were discussed with any of the parties,” Boucher said.

PALESTINIANS STAND FIRM

Meanwhile, Edward Djerejian, the assistant secretary of state for Near East and South Asian affairs, met Thursday afternoon with 14 Arab ambassadors to brief them on Christopher’s Middle East trip.

Prior to the meeting, Djerejian met with the ambassadors of Egypt and the three Arab countries participating in the bilateral peace talks with Israel: Lebanon, Syria and Jordan.

The United States has been trying to get the stalled bilateral talks restarted, but the stumbling block has been the unresolved fate of some 400 Palestinians whom Israel deported to Lebanon in December.

In Israel, Palestinian leaders reiterated Thursday that they will not return to the peace talks until the deportees are allowed to return to the administered territories.

Dr. Saeb Erekat, a member of the Palestinian negotiating delegation, said at a meeting in eastern Jerusalem that the Palestinians are caught in a situation in which they are unable to return to the talks because Rabin will not hand them the ladder to climb down off the tree.

Erekat said they are caught in a no-win situation. If the Palestinian leadership stays out of the peace process, they will miss out, but if they return under the present circumstances, they will be subject to widespread attacks by their own people.

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